The Three Faces of Expired Film Photography

“Using expired film is risky, foolish and virtually always ends in disappointing, unappealing photographs, so why bother?”

This might be the kind of advice you hear from some quarters, but it’s certainly not been my experience, very far from it.

In fact, over the last three or four years, I’d estimate over 80% of the 35mm film I’ve shot has been expired.

In my experience with expired film, it tends to go one of three ways –

1. It looks indistinguishable from fresh film, possibly slightly more saturated.

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Pentax MX, Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 lens, Kodak Color Plus 200 film expired 2010
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Canon Sure Shot Tele, 40mm f/2.8 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film
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Pentax Spotmatic F, Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.7 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film
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Contax 139 Quartz, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

2. It produces interesting colour shifts, sometimes purples and greens, but also amber tones.

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Minolta X-700, Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8 lens, Truprint FG+200 film expired 2006
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Contax 139 Quartz, Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, York Photo 100 expired film
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Minolta Dynax 7000i, Tokina SD 28-70mm lens, Truprint FG+ 200 expired film
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Contax 139 Quartz, Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, York Photo 100 expired film

3. It looks washed out, overly grainy and lacking in contrast and detail.

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Pentax ES, Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens, Solution VX200 expired film
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Fujica ST701, Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens, Solution VX200 expired film

The high proportion of rolls that end up as 1 and 2 for me outweigh the disappointment of the few that turn out like 3.

Of the expired film I’ve shot, only maybe one roll in every 12 turns out poorly.

Recently it’s been even less than that.

Here are the basic guidelines I follow to ensure I get often pleasing and frequently delightful results using expired film – 

1. Stick to colour negative film.

Modern colour negative film is very robust, and most consumer film has a fantastic latitude of around -1/+3. This means you can under expose by a stop or over expose by three stops, and still get very decent results.

It follows, by my logic, that even if it’s expired and you follow the general rule of thumb that film loses sensitivity by one stop every decade, there’s still plenty of flexibility there, before the film will start to struggle.

2. Use only ISO100 and ISO200 film.

Following on from the above point, these films are very tolerant. The faster the film, the faster it deteriorates.

I don’t bother using expired ISO400 film any more as I’ve been disappointed far more often than not. But with ISO200 and ISO100 they’re rarely a let down.

3. Stay within ten years expired, or less. 

The older the film, the more it will have deteriorated, so the greater the risk it will be grainy, washed out and low contrast.

If you stay within 5-10 years expired, there’s little chance the film has significantly lost any quality. Especially in the UK, where most unused film is sitting in the back of a cool drawer or cupboard, and not in sunlight or heat, which rapidly increase the rate of deterioration.

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Konica AutoReflex T, Hexanon 52mm f/1.8 lens, FujiFilm Superia 100 film expired 2003

These simple guidelines work for me, and I enjoy the results I get from expired film.

If you like some of the samples above, feel free to follow these suggestions and experiment with expired film yourself – especially if you never have before for fear it’s guaranteed to end in disaster.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

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Three Precious Things

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Pentax MG, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8, FujiFilm Superia 100 

As my photography has evolved, it’s gradually become apparent to me what I value most about it as a pursuit, as well as what I best appreciate in the cameras I use.

Whilst I’m still growing and learning, I’m far more knowledgable now about the “magic formula” I need to enjoy film photography as much as possible.

Three precious things come to mind –

1. A beautiful viewfinder. 

For me the essential joy of photography is being able to see a tiny snapshot of the world, in a specific moment, and for that moment it be the entire world.

When I’m focused on a single composition through the viewfinder (VF), as I squeeze the shutter button (and for a second or so after), my entire relationship and connection with the world is simply what’s captured in that little rectangle.

It’s meditative, spiritual and visceral all at once, and one of the greatest experiences of life.

So, it follows that for these vital moments, one has a viewfinder that heightens the experience to the full.

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Minolta X-700, MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4, a gorgeous lens/ viewfinder combination

Pretty much all of the SLRs I use have very good viewfinders. The combination that is king of the mountain is my Minolta X-700 paired with my Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens.

The huge front surface of the glass allows a great amount of light into the also huge viewfinder of the X-700 and the result is wonderful, and often literally breathtaking.

Recently I got an AutoFocus (AF) Minolta Dynax 7000i, which has a surprisingly great VF too. Not as vast as the X-700, but not that far off, and the view I get with my latest lens, a Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7, is very enjoyable. I’m become quite attached too, to how the lens snaps into focus, and the VF view changes accordingly.

Presently, I can’t see myself returning to compacts or rangefinders any time soon, because the VF experience of an SLR is just too intoxicatingly joyful.

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Minolta X-700, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4, FujiFilm Superia 100

2. How a camera feels.

This is a far more subjective one, and has a few component parts. It begins when you pick up a camera, before you even raise it to your eye. How your hand moulds around the camera’s body, the texture and temperature of the materials, the width, the weight, the girth.

This has to combine with the lens the camera has attached. Staying with SLRs, the lens you use can make quite a difference to the overall feel and balance and pleasure of a camera.

As one hand is almost constantly around the lens, that tactile experience is very important.

Again for me, Minolta come to mind, with both the aforementioned X-700 and 7000i. The latter especially is very well shaped for my hands and has a reassuring weight. With a zoom lens it can feel a bit too much, but with the little 50/1.7 AF it feels far more compact and balanced.

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Minolta Dynax 7000i, Minolta AF 50/1.7, very satisfying to hold and use

All of my Pentax cameras feel great, well balanced and bring a smile to my face. Sometimes I prefer the weight and size of the older Spotmatic F or K2, and others the compact lightness of the little MG is just what I’m craving.

Bottom line is if a camera doesn’t feel good in my hands, even if it’s the most capable and expensive lens/body in the world, I’m not going to enjoy it much.

Which brings us to…

3. The photographs.

I have commented in the past that even the few times I’ve shot a roll of film only to find the film hasn’t wound on and I’ve shot 24 or 36 blanks, I’ve not enjoyed the experience any the less. And those 24/36 shots I took, I still captured with my eyes, mind and memory, even if they weren’t recorded on film.

Elements 1 and 2 above are the most crucial, and 3 is the chocolate sauce on top.

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Pentax MZ-5N, Pentax-M 50/1.7, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200

I’ve learnt, via a series of revelations, not least of all realising that when you put a len-less SLR on B mode, open the back, press the shutter release button and look through, there’s nothing but fresh air, that cameras are really just boxes.

In other words, and at the moment of exposure, it’s the lens only that dictates the characteristics of how the light lands on the film.

Then there’s film of course. Again via endless experiments, I’ve found the films I enjoy most – the super cheap, readily available and surprisingly capable AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200, the rich and colourful Ferrania Solaris 200 and, my most recent discovery, the fantastic FujiFilm Superia 100, which even ten years expired produces a beautiful balance of sharpness and grain.

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Pentax K1000, Pentax-M 50/1.4, Ferrania Solaris 200

Two out of three isn’t bad, and a camera with a wonderful viewfinder and lens will give a rewarding experience out in the field. But combined with poor film it’ll disappoint in the final image.

So to have the optimum experience of the delight that is film photography, I need all three elements – a camera with an excellent viewfinder, and that feels wonderful to hold, plus a lens and film that I know will give pleasing results.

What are the three most precious things for you in the magic formula for rewarding film photography? 

Expired Emulsions – Ferrania Solaris 200

The first post in this Expired Emulsions series introduced some of the reasons why I love using expired film, and how I use it.

One of my favourites is Ferrania Solaris 200 FG Plus.

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When I first got into film photography in mid 2012, my early film purchases were Fuji Superia 200 and 400, bought from a local camera shop. As I read more online, I read a tip off that Poundland here in the UK (discount chain store that sells everything for £1) stocked 35mm film, so off I went to my nearest branch.

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Poundland had fresh AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 36exp rolls in single packs, and the Ferrania Solaris 200 24exp rolls in twin packs with the expiry date suspiciously blacked out.

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I wondered how good a film that was effectively 50p a roll, and obviously expired (hence the doctored packaging) could be, but bought a couple of packs anyway.

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It turned out to be one of my favourite, if not my absolute favourite film I’ve ever used, and I managed to stock up maybe 70 or 80 rolls in the following months from Poundland, before they ran out nationally.

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Although I’ve used it almost as much as any film (AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 aka rebranded Fuji C200 – the other Poundland special – is my most used film), fortunately I still have maybe 30 rolls in my freezer.

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Also fortunately, it seems to hold up as well as it did the day I bought that first batch, and shows none of the sometimes unpleasant traits over-expired film can have like excessive grain and washed out colours.

15309097159_d9c938b7e7_zIn fact it is colour that the Solaris excels at. I’ve always considered it to be a film that works very well with autumn reds and oranges, but looking back through my archives have found it’s equally pleasing with yellows, blues and greens.

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The film is no longer made, though it can still be found knocking around in the usual online places, ie eBay. I’ve also found that some (but not all – Made in Italy is likely Ferrania, Made in USA is likely Kodak) Truprint film (UK photo chain that disappeared from high streets a few years back but remains in business online) is rebranded Ferrania, though I’ve yet to test any out.

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If you get the opportunity to use any Ferrania Solaris 200, I would highly recommend it, especially if it’s not too expired (five years ideally, but worth a risk even if a few years older). For the kind of vivid colours I so love about film, it’s in my view as special as anything I’ve tried, and the day my freezer stocks run dry will be a sad one.

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